About The Book:
The authors, Arthur and Vivien have written 24 wonderful stories that will activate your curiosity and entertain your mind. Enjoy one of the most talked about chapters,Whatever Happen to J.L. Spratling, a famous, but reclusive author that finds hope and redemption:
Whatever Happen to J.L. Spratling?
A stroke of genius! That was the consensus of the public relations community. Bill Van Edy of Picken Press had booked the famous Oak Room at the fabled Algonquin Hotel for the press conference. The cachet of the Algonquin has been unabated in the literary community since the “Round Table” gatherings of the twenties and thirties.
The purpose of the press conference was to announce the publication of the new novel by J.L. Spratling. One December morning, after tough negotiations with the event manager, he’d rented the cabaret space just off the hotel lobby for two hours on a Tuesday afternoon for $14,000. That price included all room arrangements, moving the piano to the side, an open beer-and-wine bar for the first hour—but not the world-famous Algonquin lobby cat.
The ghosts of H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker seemed to hover and shimmer over the crowd gathered to celebrate the first publication by J.L. Spratling in twenty-five years. Spratling’s last book, Low Key, had been an enormous success, as was the subsequent Hollywood production by the same name, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1988. During the seventies and eighties, J.L. Spratling was known as “the other Stephen King”. He had published five hugely successful novels, two of which were adapted for the movies, including Low Key. Then J.L. Spratling had seemed to vanish into thin air as mysteriously as a character in one of his genre ghost novels. It was a saga of reclusiveness following success in the manner of J.D. Salinger. Reported rumors had him living in seclusion, possibly in Mexico, Norway, the U.K., Idaho or Canada. Had he achieved the ultimate seclusion—death? That was never confirmed.
Van Edy sent invitations to the publishing, media and showbiz giants. Anyone who could fit into the Cabaret Room or the adjacent lobby would be welcome. About a half-hour into the press conference, a seventyish, tall, erect man strode confidently into the room from the service entrance of the kitchen. Thick, straight, iron-gray hair fell over his deeply furrowed forehead, stopping just short of his heavily lidded eyes of indeterminate color. J.L. was tieless and jacketless, with an open-collared, blue oxford shirt tucked neatly into tailored blue denim jeans. His only accessory was a pair of half-moon reading glasses dangling from a woven string around his neck. He carried no briefcase or papers and looked neither to right nor left as he stepped up to the lectern, flanked on one side by publicist Van Edy and on the other by Janet Cohen, his editor at Picken Press. The generally younger journalistic audience gave a sprinkling of light applause, unsure of the identity of the recent arrival.
“Let me start by saying thank you to all of you for remembering me and coming here today.”
There were murmurs throughout the crowd and a voice at the back rang out, “Welcome back, J.L.!”
“I’ll only make a few remarks and I won’t be taking any questions.”
The hum in the crowd muted and then totally quieted.
“Dark River was conceived and largely completed twenty-five years ago. This was pre-computer days and if any of you are old enough to remember that time in the publishing business…” Spratling paused for the laughter to subside. “Writers and editors in those days actually mailed chapters, ideas and manuscripts back and forth for review and suggestions. A 500-page book involves lots of editing and rewrites. Today it can be done in minutes through the Internet. My very capable and gifted late editor Karen Chase and I would have exchanged packages at least twenty times over a two-year period! Each new version would have annotations, red pencil deletions and comments all over the manuscript.”
Spratling continued, “All that time I was living in a cabin along the Mira River in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, with no need or desire for a telephone. During these past twenty-five years, I have experienced a very long drought of writing creativity often referred to with dread as writer’s block.”
When the author paused, many hands in the crowd were raised. “Again, I remind you that I will not be answering questions today; however, I do have more to say.”
Spratling pointed toward the rear of the room. “I’d like to acknowledge my dear friend, Dr. Howard Harris, who is here today and it is through his efforts that a late draft of this novel was uncovered and ultimately re-worked and published as Dark River.”
The old man, Van Edy at his side, stepped away from the podium and disappeared through the door to the kitchen.
Dr. Howard Harris smiled, finished the last of his wine, placed his glass on a tray and ignoring the questioning looks around him headed through the lobby into the fading December light of West 44th Street. He was reminded as he strolled of the famous Paul Harvey line: “…and now for the rest of the story…” He hoped that when the rest of the story was told in the book he was working on, it would make an even bigger splash than Dark River…
Two years earlier and exactly thirty blocks south of the Algonquin, also on a Tuesday, Sylvia Klaff bounded through the entrance of the McBurney Y on Fourteenth Street. An unattractive and overweight gym rat, she kept rigidly to her daily, early morning exercise routine. After scanning her ID card at the front desk, she headed downstairs to the women’s locker room and made her daily stop at the single half-bookcase, which was the Y’s unofficial and casual lending library. However, Sylvia was not a reader; she would peruse the new stack of books, attempting to determine which of the soft and hard covers might have some retail value. She “borrowed” them with no intention of returning or exchanging them.
The nearby Strand Bookstore on Broadway and Twelfth Street is the largest in the world. Available is everything in print, fiction and nonfiction, and the store also features a famous rare books department. Their buyer purchases used hard and soft cover books of all types. Sylvia was often able to cover her monthly dues at the Y with the books “borrowed” from the lending library. Only a few months before, she had picked up a first edition of Schindler’s List with dust jacket, which had netted her $225. This Tuesday morning there were lean pickings, with only about six dog-eared paperback Harlequin romance novels that Sylvia knew had no re-sale value.
As she was about to turn away, she spotted an oversized, cardboard-bound, thick volume, on the cover of which were the words “working title,” handwritten beneath “The River” and the initials, “J.L.” She picked up the heavy package and rapidly leafed through some of the 400-plus typed pages. Many pages contained red pencil markings with additional handwritten comments on the reverse side. To her thinking, this was either an abandoned pathetic attempt at a first novel or a draft for a doctoral thesis. Well, spin class was starting soon, so if it was still there later she would take it to the buyer at the Strand in hopes it might have some value.
A week later Sylvia, pulling a roller bag filled with her Y acquisitions, stopped by the Strand. Most days the Strand is jammed with New Yorkers and worldwide tourists, all of whom share a love for the miles of books. Sylvia found the book buyer sitting on a high stool just inside the entrance. She pulled out her collection, which he quickly and professionally examined, noting the titles and condition. He extracted the two books in which he had an interest, deftly sliding the rest back to her. “I can give you eight dollars for the two John Updike short story collections.”
Sylvia nodded her approval and reached into her roller bag. Awkwardly, she handed him the heavy River manuscript.
The buyer glanced through the thick volume and pushed the package away. “I have no interest in this either.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Judging by the yellowing of the pages, I would guess that it is someone’s long-ago attempt at writing fiction.” The buyer glanced beyond Sylvia and found a line beginning to form. He hurriedly wrote her a voucher for the eight dollars and said, “You can redeem this at the cashier.”
On the way out of the Strand, Sylvia looked around and then dumped the heavy manuscript of The River onto the outside dollar-per-book sale table. She slunk away, the roller bag squeaking behind her…
Howard Harris, M.D., had lived in the East Village on Ninth Street near Broadway all through his psychiatric residency at the NYU Medical Center. He developed a regular routine of walking up Broadway to Union Square, where he would take the Number 6 train to 33rd Street and then walk east to the University Hospital or Bellevue, wherever his rotation was. On cold days, such as this December morning, he favored his red-checked Woolrich hunting jacket. The bulky but tailored coat emphasized a youthful athletic build. He had a full head of longish, straight blond hair and with his pressed chinos he typified his Poconos, Pennsylvania, rural upbringing. His routine took him by the Strand, where he loved to shop for books matching his varied interests. He was particularly attracted by novels dealing with subjects of rage, duplicity and revenge, because they reflected his focus in psychiatry. However, today he was in a hurry to get to Grand Rounds in time to hear a visiting scholar, Sir Alastair Betterich of Oxford University, present “Psychiatric Implications of Genetic Metabolic Disorders.”
As Howard rushed by the sidewalk dollar table, he noticed a bulky book that had fallen to the ground below. He stopped to pick it up, noticing the title The River and the initials “J.L.” After a glance at his watch, he leafed through the bound manuscript, wondering whether this could possibly be a draft of a published J.L. Spratling novel. He made a quick decision and reached into his pocket for four quarters and a dime to cover the tax as he rushed inside to the cashier.
The young woman flipped the book over looking for a price sticker. “Where did you find this?”
“Just outside on the dollar table.”
“I don’t see a price anywhere,” she said. She called across to the buyer in the almost empty store, “Jim, this guy says he found this outside on the dollar table but it’s not priced.”
Howard was getting anxious that he might be late to rounds but was determined to have the book. He could not afford the chance that it might disappear into the Strand’s rare book system, so he pondered how much he’d pay to have it now.
Before he could express his offer of more money, the buyer called out, “Oh, I know that book. Some woman brought it in to sell about twenty minutes ago and I rejected it. She must have used the sale table as a garbage pail!” He laughed. “It really is garbage. He found it—he can have it for nothing!”
Without waiting for further conversation, Howard grabbed the book, stuffed it in his backpack and raced toward the subway with the prize.
Howard Harris had spent almost eight years at the New York University Medical Center, first as a medical student, then an intern and the last three years in the residency program in psychiatry. The field of psychiatry had many years ago shifted emphasis from any type of talking therapy to drug management of psychiatric diseases. The theory was that, with so many drugs available to treat symptoms, the psychological aspects could be muted or made to disappear. Howard’s thesis for presentation at the residents’ research day had been “The Pharmacologic Management of the Neurologic and Psychological Aspects of Acute Intermittent Porphyria.” This rare genetic disease was known to cause severe physical pain, as well as red skin and purple or red urine. Other symptoms included confusion and paranoia. Once appropriately diagnosed, pain is managed with opioids such as morphine and symptoms can be significantly abated with the drug, Hematon.
Dr. Betterich’s lecture, well received by over fifty physicians and nurses, covered several genetic diseases including porphyria. At the call for questions, Howard raised his hand. “I’m sure you have seen the movie, The Madness of King George.”
“Yes, I did and I enjoyed it.”
“Well, Dr. Betterich, with the drugs we have today, can we effectively cure our patients diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria?”
Dr. Betterich laughed. “Yes, we might if properly diagnosed and I think our current politicians would offer a large reservoir for potential study.”
Later that day Howard returned to his East Village home, a remodeled studio apartment on the second floor of a 19th-century townhouse. Even before removing his jacket he perused his bookcases, pulling out his collection of J.L. Spratling novels. The five paperbacks were lined up on the lower shelf and there was no “River” in any of the titles. He decided to put off a more detailed examination to see whether there were similarities with parts of the five novels and reminded himself that J.L. could be the initials of a completely different author. Besides, with his on-call schedule and the planned visit of his girlfriend Jan, a law student at Northwestern in Chicago, he would be tied up until Monday.
The following Monday at two p.m., Howard rushed home and sat at his desk with a pad and the manuscript. He noted the typed manuscript and the two different sets of handwritten notations, quickly establishing them to be comments of author and editor. Based on the subject and writing style, and the fact that the editor addressed the author as J.L., Howard was convinced that he was examining an unpublished J.L. Spratling novel. Besides, “J.L.” addressed his comments to “K.C.” and the editor at Picken Press who had handled J.L. Spratling’s novels exclusively was Karen Chase. He knew she had died ten years previously. For Howard, the most exciting discovery was the full-page comments written on the inside cover in a shaky hand. “K.C., I can’t finish this novel. I’m not well. I’m in terrible pain. My skin is angry at me—it has turned red. Everyone is trying to take advantage of me and stealing my sentences. Please don’t send this back with any more comments. You are part of the literary conspiracy against me. Leave me alone! Destroy this manuscript! In spite of your duplicity, we did have positive experiences in the past, so I can only wish that after you leave me alone you will be okay.”
It was signed “J.L.S.” and there was one final comment: “As one last favor to me, please keep my Mira NS address to yourself.”
It was almost midnight; Howard was exuberant as he put down the thick, unwieldy manuscript. He slept very little that night. Putting all the available facts together, the writer’s block of J.L. Spratling represented symptoms of acute intermittent porphyria as described by Dr. Betterich in his lecture and as Howard had researched for his presentation on the last residents’ research day. There were no dates on the manuscript and no mailing envelope, so he had to find out whether Spratling was still alive and if so, where was he?
A Google search over the next hour incorporated the rumored J.L. Spratling locations in Mexico, Canada, Australia and the U.K. Howard determined that “NS” could stand for “nuevo something” and “Mira” certainly sounded Spanish; or “NS” could have something to do with Australia and New South Wales. As he headed to the fridge for a late-night snack, a silly idea popped into his head: NS—could it be related to the smoked salmon from the deli that they advertised as Nova Scotia salmon? That represented a province in Canada, one of the rumored locations of J.L. Spratling.
Back to Google Maps: he quickly located the Mira River outside Sydney on the Island of Cape Breton, part of the province of Nova Scotia. A name search for J.L. Spratling in that area was fruitless.
Three days later, after much searching online and over the phone, Howard located a helpful postal supervisor in Sydney, Nova Scotia, to whom he explained that he was trying to reach his elderly uncle, J.L. Spratling. After a long wait, just when Howard was about to hang up, the supervisor picked up the line. “Yes, I’ve located the agent who does the twice weekly rural mail delivery to Mira, which is quite remote. He says there is an old man by the name of Jay Sprat who has been there the whole time he has worked that route—twenty-two years.”
“Thanks so much! How do I address mail to him?”
“Jay Sprat, Mira, NS, Canada B1K1L3.”
After considering the letter-writing ploy, Howard rejected it as likely to be unproductive. A letter from an unknown person—even if Jay Sprat turned out to be J.L. Spratling—would be resented and ignored by a man with paranoid ideation. No doubt the best course was an uninvited visit and a direct meeting.
About a month later, Howard flew to Halifax, changed planes and landed in Sydney, a city on the northeast coast of Cape Breton Island across the water from Newfoundland. Directions provided at the Avis counter took him on a thirty-minute drive to the sparsely populated Mira River Valley. The gently rolling hills and quiet beauty of the evergreens were interspersed with views of the winding, dark Mira River as it snaked toward the Atlantic.
A solitary biker gave him directions to the little convenience store, Burke’s, mentioned by the Avis agent. When he announced that he was looking for Jay Sprat, the fortyish, dimpled, plump, blond woman stared at him for a moment, then stepped outside with him and pointed to a house high on the opposite river bank. Passing over the shaky one-lane bridge proclaimed by a sign as Albert Bridge, Howard was at the simple, faded white, green-trimmed, shake shingle cabin in five minutes. Rather than knocking on the door, Howard walked around to the river side, where a screened porch overlooked the dark Mira River. There he found an old man, seated in a wooden rocker and staring at the water.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
Howard was taken aback by the strength of the voice coming from the bent, seated figure dressed in jeans and a baggy gray sweatshirt.
“Mr. Spratling, my name is Dr. Howard Harris—I’m a physician.”
“I didn’t call any doctor.”
“No, I know you didn’t, but I’ve come all the way from New York City because I know you’re not well.”
“Well, you’re correct in that—but I’ve been sick for a long time and will remain so until I die, which I figure isn’t too far off.”
The old man struggled to his feet and faced Howard. “Look, who told you I was sick or where I live—was it that bitch Karen Chase?”
“No, Mr. Spratling, she died about ten years ago.”
“Oh… that’s too bad.”
Howard took the manuscript out of his backpack and related how he had found it and the fact that, ironically, he had attended a seminar just a few hours later where a disease called acute intermittent porphyria was discussed. Howard handed the manuscript to J.L. Spratling.
“Yes, that’s my work and if you’ve come up here to get my approval to publish it you’ve made a long trip for nothing—the answer is NO!”
“No, what caught my attention was your description of your mental condition and physical symptoms, which probably prevented you from making the final corrections.”
Spratling put on some bent metal reading glasses held together with a safety pin. Howard pointed to the inside cover.
J.L. slowly read his comments. “Well, these words were written in the late eighties. I had moved here a few years earlier to get away. I was sick then and I’m still sick.” He took off his glasses. “I’m always depressed and in pain. The red skin is not from the sun—there sure isn’t much here—and my urine is the same color. Mostly I feel angry about everything. So thanks for making the long trip up here. If you still respect me you can keep the book, but don’t publish it or sell it to anybody!”
“Mr. Spratling, I more than respect you—I’m a huge fan of your writing. But as a favor to a doctor, please give me a few minutes to discuss the disease I think you have.”
The few minutes became an hour, during which Howard discussed the genetic background and symptoms and signs of porphyria, its treatment and prognosis. J.L. gave Howard his full attention. When Howard finished, J.L. left him sitting in the chair while he went to make coffee for his uninvited guest.
“J.L., before coming I did some research on facilities available here to treat your condition. Dalhousie Medical School based in Halifax has a satellite center in Sydney. I would be happy to spend a few weeks with you as you see the doctors there, have the appropriate diagnostic tests and begin treatment.”
“I’ve been sick so long I don’t think anything will work, but I’m feeling so rotten I’m willing to try, if you will take care of the details.”
The treatment, after diagnosis was confirmed, was both chemical and psychological, augmented by exercise and a healthier diet. The exercise involved long walks through the woods and roads of the beautiful countryside.
Six weeks later, Howard posed a question to J.L. in front of his team of treating physicians. “Well, J.L., how do you feel?”
“I think you can all go home.”
The doctors looked at each other, feeling very let down.
“I mean that if I didn’t like it so much here I would be ready to go back to New York—I feel so much better!”
After the conference was over, Howard gave J.L. a restrained hug. “Well, I have to get back. I’m leaving tomorrow—I’ve used up all my vacation and my research elective time.”
“Thank you and please take the manuscript; it’s yours for being so helpful. As a fan, keep it on your shelf next to the other published novels.”
“No, J.L., I hope you will pick it up again and finish the project. It is still timely and could be your most important work…”
A year later, Dr. Howard Harris was a full-time attending physician at the busy psychiatric service at Bellevue Hospital. In the mail one day came an official invitation to the publication party at the Algonquin. He smiled as he read the handwritten note below the engraved invitation: “The author has specially requested that you attend.”
Howard smiled even more broadly as he scanned another note below written in a different, firm hand.
“Please come—without you there would be no book and I would be dead… J.L.S.”
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